In the United States, political scientists often identify portions of the United States by regions, such as the Pacific Northwest, the Great Plains, the Northeast, and the Rust Belt. By far the most intriguing region, in this student’s opinion, is the Southern United States, also nicknamed the Solid South. Out of all the regions in the United States, the Solid South is one of the most politically polarized regions, and even despite that, it has managed to go from being solidly Democratic to solidly Republican, in part due to an ideological shift by both parties.That said, there are signs that the Solid South’s tenure of Democratic dominance may not be as long as it initially appeared, and that today, it may not be as solid as it used to be. For the purposes of this essay, a few things should be noted. First, it should be noted that today, urban areas lean Democratic, rural areas lean Republican, and the suburbs are a bit of tossup, most recently leaning towards the Democrats in the 2018 elections. In addition, other than in presidential elections, the South was practically dominated by Democrats until the 1960s, and as such, only presidential elections will be addressed in the history of the South until the 1960s onward are examined. Of course, what the Solid South is and the changes that its going through should be further elaborated on.
In order to understand the Solid South, one must first understand what states are featured in this region. While definitions of what falls into the Solid South have been debated, all these states have been included in some variant of the definition: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia, among them states that were either part of or border the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. It should also be noted that in comparison to the Democratic Party today, Democrats in the South were rather conservative. In the aftermath of the Civil War, barring a few presidential elections in the late 1860s and early 1870s where Republicans won southern states, the Solid South developed a reputation for being one of the most safely Democratic regions in the South, so much so that according to sites such as NPR, there was even a term known as Yellow Dog Democrats who would sooner vote for a mutt over than anyone from the party of Lincoln. And for most of its political history, the Solid South lived up to that reputation. Until the 1920s, barring a presidential victory by Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft in Missouri and West Virginia in 1904 and 1908, victories in the South by Republicans, be it at the national or state level, were about as common as Halley’s Comet. During the 1920s, however, success for Republicans increased.
After World War I, one of the greatest issues facing the country was whether to join the League of Nations. The Republicans were generally in opposition to joining, and most of the country, exhausted by the war, agreed with them. These feelings of isolationism resonated nationwide, even in the South, and this led to small cracks in the Solid South occurring in the 1920 presidential election. Although James Cox won most of the South (In fact, it was the only region in which he had any success), He lost Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky, and West Virginia to presidential nominee Warren G. Harding. After Harding died in office, Vice President Calvin Coolidge succeeded him. Coolidge did not perform as well as Harding did, though he still did win a few southern states, such as West Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri. The worst performance in the South for Democrats by far however, was for Al Smith in 1928. According to the journal article Demise of the Solid South, by Gerald Webster, Smith was very unappealing to the South, with Smith characterized as a friend of the Negro and a supporter of racial intermarriage and equal rights. This led to underwhelming performances in much of the Solid South, as not only did Herbert Hoover almost win Alabama, but he also won Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Considering that Republicans had not won most of these states since the end of Reconstruction, it was truly an amazing performance. Unfortunately for the GOP, they would not have an opportunity to build on this, as the Great Depression followed, and so did dominating political performance after political performance by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who carried the Solid South in addition to most of the country. After FDR’s death in 1944, however, Harry Truman would become President in 1948, and his support for civil rights brought back old political wounds in the Solid South.
Although the South was for all intents and purposes under one-party rule, the Democratic Party in the South was more conservative than the Democratic Party in the South, which created interparty conflicts through out the party’s history, with there even being a union of sorts between Republicans and Southern Democrats during the New Deal era in opposition to certain New Deal policies culminating in a bipartisan writing by the aforementioned groups that was referred to in Senator Josiah W. Bailey and the Conservative Manifesto of 1937 as the Conservative Manifesto. (Moore 21) Further conflict would erupt at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, where the Democratic Party adopted a civil rights plank as part of their party platform. This resulted in Southern Democrats leaving the convention and nominating their own candidate in South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond, who was nominated as a Dixiecrat. In the 1948 presidential election, where Harry Truman shockingly defeated Thomas Dewey, Thurmond managed to perform rather well in the South, winning Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi. This was in large part due to him being the actual Democratic Party nominee in those states, with Truman not even being an option on the ballot in Alabama. Nevertheless, this showed the divide between Southern Democrats and their Northern counterparts. Attempts to quell this division were seen in the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections, where Adlai Stevenson’s vice-presidential nominees would both be Democrats from the South, Senator John Sparkman of Alabama in 1952, and Senator Estes Kefauver in 1956. Performances in the South were also underwhelming as well, with the Stevenson/Sparkman ticket losing Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, and Virginia to popular war hero Dwight Eisenhower, with the Stevenson/Kefauver ticket winning back Missouri, but also losing Louisiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia in addition to the Southern states lost in the previous election. In addition, in the narrow 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy was nearly dealt a similar fate as his fellow Catholic Al Smith a few decades earlier. Not only that, but Dixiecrat Harry Byrd was also on the ballot, gaining electoral votes in Alabama, Missouri, and Oklahoma. The Republican nominee, Vice President Richard Nixon, performed relatively well in the South himself, winning Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and Florida, while also coming close to winning Texas and the Carolinas. Clearly, the tenure of the Solid South was not as long as its reputation would imply, and the conservative views of the populace, combined with frustration over civil rights issues, would lead to implosion in the later 1960s.
The 1962 midterm elections for Democrats were rather successful as far as such elections went for the party in power. They retained a commanding majority in the House, and overall had a net gain of seats in the Senate, gaining a veto-proof majority. The South, however, was bit more turbulent. Republicans managed to elect their first governor of Oklahoma since Reconstruction in Henry Bellmon, and managed to make modest gains in the House with victories in Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
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